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Book Review - The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster

Dead Men Walking

The Book of Illusions
Paul Auster

Published by Henry Holt & Company

Review by W. R. Greer

If a tree falls in a forest with nobody around, does it make a sound? At one point in his 10th novel, The Book of Illusions, Paul Auster briefly refers to this philosophical concept. If a man, however, lives a life that nobody else notices, did he really live? That's the real debate that he proposes with this novel.

The book opens with the sentence, "Everyone thought he was dead." It refers to a silent film comedian named Hector Mann who just disappeared one day back in 1929, but it could just as easily refer to the protagonist of the story, David Zimmer, a literature professor at a liberal arts college in Vermont. David's life came to an end the day his wife and sons were killed in a plane crash. That disaster sent him diving headlong into drink and depression and he lived in an almost catatonic state in front of the television every day. He saw no purpose to living, but he was also unable to take his own life. He divorced society, quit his job, and broke off all contact with the people in his former life.

One day, a spark of life emerged while he watched a short clip of a Hector Mann movie on the television. He laughed. That moment of laughter made him realize that there was still something inside him that wanted to live, and he realized he needed a purpose, something to occupy his mind and to get him through every day. David decided to write a book about Hector Mann and his movies. He had previously written several books of literary critique and he applied the same thorough research methods of his academic career to find out all he could about Hector Mann. The only copies of the 12 silent movies Hector Mann ever made were distributed among different film museums around the world, so he traveled to all of them and watched all the movies repeatedly until he had them memorized. Paul Auster does a wonderful job letting us watch the movies through David Zimmer's eyes. David not only tells us the plot of the movie, but the underlying themes and symbolism, and how the movies fit within Hector Mann's life and career. When the book is finished and published by an academic press, the reader has no doubt that David Zimmer had written the definitive book about Hector Mann.

Like every other person who had examined Hector Mann's life, David is unable to explain his sudden disappearance in 1929. There were no signs of foul play, no hints of depression or disasters in his life. Hector Mann had a promising career, he was handsome, dashing, and popular with women, and had no reason to leave the movie business. Yet one day, he simply vanished and all attempts to find out what happened to him proved fruitless.

The publication of the book brought the existence of David Zimmer to the attention of the outside world. A friend from his past called and asked him to do a translation for him of French writer Chateaubriand's opus Mémoires d'outre-tombe. David translates the title to be Memoirs of a Dead Man. Chateaubriand didn't want his lengthy memoirs published until after his death, but financial considerations prevented that. He didn't want his life deconstructed and reexamined until he wasn't around to see it done. David also received a letter from a Frieda Spelling claiming to be Hector Mann's wife. She said she'd read his book and wanted to know if he would like to come to New Mexico and meet Hector.

David initially believed the letter to be a fraud, someone playing an unfunny joke on him. Subsequent letters arrived and David would have liked nothing better than to believe that Hector was alive, this man who had brought him back to life with his movies and who had a story to tell that nobody else knew. He was afraid, though, to get his hopes up. His mood soured even more and his few interactions with people in his life bordered on the psychotic. He'd rather just be left alone. Soon after, a woman named Alma arrived at his house to take him to New Mexico to see Hector, by force, if necessary.

This sets the stage for stories of multiple lives, deaths, and resurrections. Hector Mann died several times, the first after a tragedy in Los Angeles when his arrogance and carelessness with a woman's heart caused the death of the woman he loved. He ran away, assumed a new identity, and then compounded his crime with his interaction with his dead lover's family in Spokane, Washington. That set him on the road once more. Along the way he left broken lives and broken hearts, his as much as anyone else's. He sank further into despair and depravity, and like David, he'd rather be dead but he can't finish the job himself. An act of redemption in Ohio, though, brings Hector back to life and in love and happily married for the rest of his life.

Paul Auster sets up obvious parallels between the two men's lives, the trauma and tragedies and the randomness of events that have a large effect on both of them. Both rail against this randomness and decide that if they can't control their lives, then they won't live them. Their descents to the edge of madness convince them to find some way to live within the confines of the world, that they just have to find a way to coexist with it. Hector decided that he was to stay hidden from public sight and that he would continue to make movies, but nobody would ever see them. The movies he made during the years he lived in New Mexico would be burned upon his death and cease to exist alongside him. This decision to delete his life's work so that he would be erased from history only brings more heartbreak and disaster. Hector's plan is flawed because his life was not just defined by what he did, but by the people who loved him, knew him, or wanted to know him. He couldn't erase his life without erasing part of theirs too.

David Zimmer narrates the entire novel while writing a book many years later to tell the story of that time in his life, and the story of Hector Mann. Everything is told through David's eyes and his reactions to it including Hector's movies, Alma's telling of Hector's story, and his own depths of despair. It creates a distance between David and the reader. David is telling the story for his own purposes and it's obvious he wishes we wouldn't read it. Paul Auster moves us in and out of the story, at times detached and suddenly without realizing it, we're drawn in sharply with hope or sadness or heartbreak.

Make no mistake about it, Paul Auster is a phenomenal writer. His prose dances through your mind, grabbing at images and emotions and ideas as you read and just when you think you know where he's going, he's off somewhere else and dragging you along with him. When I was done with the book, I wanted to read it again and deconstruct his words and see how he put it all together, much as David Zimmer did with Hector Mann's life and his movies.

This is not a "feel good" book and it's not a story that will keep you turning pages to see what happens next. If you want a book to challenge your thoughts and emotions and perspective on life, then I can recommend it highly. Just don't think you'll put it down with a satisfied smile on your face.

Copyright © 2003

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Paul Auster

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